The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark (Empires of Dust #1)

"Not sure I really feel like fucking someone who's part god and part suicidal drunk, you know"

I received an advanced copy of The Court of Broken Knives via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Anna Smith Spark and Harper Voyager.

2017 has been a stunning year for adult fantasy debuts and the trend absolutely continues with The Court of Broken Knives (book one of Empires of Dust) which will surely become a grimdark classic. The beginning sees readers following a crew of mercenaries as they approach Sorlost, the empire's richest and arguably, most important City to complete a mission that could change the world.

I loved the manner in which the writing is surprisingly poetic throughout the tale, aiding to create beautiful prose. The novel includes grimdark fans favourite elements such as betrayal, battles, brutal deaths, characters who are bastards that I loved to hate, Gods with strange motives, and dragons! If anything, many of the gory scenes hit harder because of how stunningly pretty some of the writing is. The narrative sometimes has as infectious, trance-like flow that I thought was excellent. In addition, occasionally the action is so fast and intense that my eyes weren't able to keep up with the reading pace that my brain wished to employ which left me feeling utterly breathless.

To begin with, this story reminded me of C.F. Iggulden's Darien with the political unrest and potential overthrowing of an Emperor and like Iggulden's story, I thought The Court Of Broken Knives would all take place in one impressive and giant City. I was incorrect. We explore what I imagine is a vast and diverse amount of this world, seeing different races, mythological creatures and expansive settings. The history and religions seem expertly created. The map presented within the book looks gorgeous too (although I couldn't zoom in on my advanced e-version.) Great cartography by the artist and a well-crafted world by Anna.

There are four main characters that readers follow, and I won't say too much about them as they are the main drawing point for grimdark classics, but they don't disappoint. The four major individuals are a mercenary captain, a new recruit, a priestess and a politician. I really liked three out of the four characters. Although they all have merits, I didn't like reading about one of them as much. They are all presented in the third person perspective sometimes switching between multiple characters views smoothly in the same chapter. A few, what seems like short interludes, have one of these four characters occasionally speaking in the first person. Slightly confusing but I have faith that this is a device that has been utilised for a reason. We are also presented a few mysterious interludes featuring a dark-haired boy and a light-haired boy and these were really engaging.

Like some epic fantasy, the peculiar names given to characters and places can be confusing so I hope the finished book includes a dramatis personae. It wasn't much of an issue but is worth pointing out that and in addition, if you don't read the book for a few days you might find yourself slightly lost and have to re-skim previous chapters. These aren't really negatives and if anything they are familiar issues with the highest calibre fantasy releases. The more effort you put in the greater the affinity with the ensemble and their final outcomes. The ending of this book is fantastic and if I am reading it right, a potential action could go one of two very diverse ways. Whatever the outcome is, I will 100% own book #2 as soon as I can. Anna and this world have so much to offer. Although the story is self-contained it leaves more questions, intrigue and loose threads than the majority of debut books this length. I guess that just means I will think about it more which can't be a bad thing.

This book truly is grimdark of the highest order with one of the most complex, beautiful and destructive characters ever written. Queen of Grimdark is a pseudonym well earned. If you mixed beauty, darkness, complexity, death and poetry then you would have something that is a lot like Smith Spark's debut.

- James Tivendale 9/10

The Court of Broken Knives is an excellent grimdark fantasy book which I found super intense to read and left me feeling a bit overwhelmed – in the best possible way! 
It follows the story of a group of mercenaries employed by a bored noble with grand ambitions to kill his Emperor and court to usher in a ‘better rule’. One of the fighting men turns out to be rather more than anyone expected and then with double crosses and triple crosses (and maybe even quadruple crosses), the assassination attempt goes tits up and everyone has to deal the best they can with the fallout. 

Told from multiple point of views, the story opens with the brutal narrative of a soldier in the god Amrath’s army and we see first-hand the God’s lust for death, glory and violence and the sway he holds over his men. It swiftly leads on to Tobias, a senior in the mercenary group, traipsing through the desert on their way to the assassination job only to be attacked by a dragon. 
After this fast-paced, brutal action, the story takes a slower turn as we see from the perspective of the bored noble Orhan in the city of Sorlost in the Sekemleth Empire and learn about his plotting and machinations. Thalia is the High Priest in Sorlost and she has a tough job that involves lots of human sacrifice. And there’s also ‘new boy’ Marith, the mercenary with a past that he’s trying to run away from.    
The plot is quite straightforward: the first half of this book is the lead up to the assassination attempt, then the epic storming of the Emperor’s palace and unexpected outcome. After, Marith goes back to confront his past and Orhan attempts to pick up the pieces in Sorlost. There are plenty of interesting subplots that kept my attention, but it is the complex characters that really shine, with a narrative that at some points reads like a stream of consciousness. 
What I loved about this book was the prose. There is a very unique and distinctive use of language and syntax that creates a kind of forceful, rapid-fire rhythm that makes reading exhausting yet exhilarating. For me, it really amplified the bleak and oppressive atmosphere of the story. 
I would’ve liked to have seen more female characters, and for Thalia to be a bit more kick-ass and not just the ‘trophy’ girlfriend. Before the assassination attempt (and before Marith comes into his own), there were a couple of scenes which I couldn’t tell if they were being told by Tobias or Marith. And after the assassination attempt, Orhan’s narrative went completely off the boil and seemed to lack a sense of urgency and tension.
Otherwise, I massively enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to those who are looking for fantasy on the grim and dark side with grey characters, violence and a pervasive sense of doom but who are open to a refreshingly different style of writing.

- Rosalyn Kelly 8.5/10

This is an exhilarating piece of grimdark fiction. It tells the story of a plague on one man’s mind. It’s raw, visceral and taps into the darkest places fantasy can go. GIVE. ME. MORE.

I found the characterisation quite unique. Normally when writers create characters, they try to make them interesting and compelling and conflicted. They will tell you all that’s intriguing about them within the first few pages because they want you to carry on reading. Anna Smith Spark doesn’t do this. She introduces her reader to a rather nondescript boy who seems to be harnessing some hidden potential. Nothing remarkable here but as time goes on, she slowly reveals how fucked up and dangerous he is.

And he is bad, very bad indeed because he is pretending to be someone else. He is pretending to be a normal solider when he is something else entirely. He is harnessing a dark rage fuelled power. But why keep it secret? This question really kept me reading. Slaying a dragon as casually as you might pick a dead bug off your boot is a dead giveaway. Marith was clearly more than he was willing to let on. Being sent into a murderous rampage because someone looks at him wrong in the street is another. He proves himself to be ridiculously adept at killing. He was born to do it. Reigning death and terror are all he knows. 

Complex characters are something all reviewers like to talk about, but this is a seriously complex character. In this rich character driven fantasy, Marith’s darkness takes centre stage. He is capable of almost anything, though he is hindered by his drug use, alcoholism, several mental disorders and his unbridled urge to kill indiscriminately. He is a murderer, a daemon, and he can’t stop himself from sinking his blade into someone’s, anyone’s, flesh. And the more he tries to stop himself the more unhinged he becomes; it’s like killing gives him a sweet release, an action that allows him to be his true self. 

The prose is a unique blend of poetry and butchery. Now doesn’t that sound kind of cool? Imagine poetical prose about violence and blood and you’d be close to what Anna Smith Spark is doing here. Imagine a poet writing about the grim realities of killing a man and you’d be a little bit closer. The point is, the prose is of the highest quality within the genre. And she wields it to tell the story of a man who is ready to claim his destiny, his birthright, his throne. 

On the way he meets a woman, a killer not too unlike himself and what develops is a dark romance between two maniacal psychopaths. And I loved their passion for each other, each using, and needing, the other to reconcile themselves with their own darkness. In the eyes of pure abject evil, they both see light. And I would like to say that it redeems them, but it doesn’t: it makes them stronger instead, more willing to kill for the other. I’m very curious to see where this goes through the series. 

So this is a very solid entry from an exciting new author, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

- Sean Barrs 9.2 / 10

9/10 Grimdark of the highest order with one of the most complex, beautiful and destructive characters ever written

Reviews by and Rosalyn Kelly and Sean Barrs

The Court of Broken Knives reader reviews

8.9/10 from 1 reviews

All Anna Smith Spark Reviews